Category Archives: Book Reviews

2016 Goals

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I can’t remember what first inspired it. It was either constantly being asked “ya, but how many books do you actually read?” or it was seeing the #readingchallenge all over Instagram. Either way, I’m a sucker for a good ol’ fashion competition even if I’m the only one participating (there is currently a Scrabble board in media res on my dining room table where I am playing myself (Self 2.0 is winning…) and so I set out in 2014 to read a book a week. It seemed like an attainable goal that would still require a decent amount of determination. I ended up reading 60 books that year (I often forget how many I can put away while on vacation) and in 2015 I simply challenged myself to surpass the number read in 2014. I barely squeaked by with a total of 61 books last year.

I had a baby girl in 2015 and if you look at my monthly tallies I can easily ascribe the number of books read to the stage of my pregnancy or whether the little one had arrived earth side yet. I read two books in all of January which was the month where I ate sushi, peed on a stick and then wished I hadn’t eaten the sushi. I read 12 books in April during the second trimester when it is said that most women experience a surge of energy used for nesting and general preparation for the baby (or, in my case, devouring any book I could get my hands on) and the month after she was born I only managed to read two books and really only because one was very good (The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah) and the other very short (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf). When my daughter started sleeping longer stretches around 3 months I dusted off the ereader and easily read 9 books in one month (the ereader is, in my opinion, God’s gift to a breastfeeding woman).

It’s a new year now which calls for a new goal and I have tired of simply trying to read as many books as possible. Moreover, this baby girl of mine apparently needs to be entertained when she’s awake and children’s books don’t really count so a big chunk of my available reading time has disappeared thus forcing me to be a bit more choosy with my selections. There’s something a bit unsatisfying about the quantity over quality challenge anyway since it sometimes prompted me to abandon a book sooner than I normally would have in the interest of time and skip other books altogether because I couldn’t assume that every 700+ page book was going to be as good as Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It also doesn’t seem right that a Nora Roberts is weighted the same as a Joan Didion or a Joy Fielding as a Wilkie Collins.

So,  for 2016 I’m going to finally read some of those classics that have haunted me for years; the ones I’ve picked up at garage sales and used book stores, carted around with me from my childhood home to uni and which now sit proudly on the bookshelves in my own home. I always told myself I would read them “someday” and I think that day has finally come.

Dust Off the Ol’ Blog

It has been a very long time, years, since I last wrote. I wasn’t sure this day would ever come again, to be honest. Life got busy: work was good, family and friends were good, I had a baby! (!) and I started crocheting so I didn’t even feel a creative void! But… there’s always something that kind of pulls me back, something resting in the back of mind telling me that I should write. And if I’m too afraid to write the real stuff writing about books seems like the next best thing. So, I’m back. For now anyway. If anyone’s still listening..

A Clockwork Orange

I’ve long discussed the merits of reading over, say, movie-watching. Typically, my thesis is that the written word can be pulled and prodded in different directions and thus the imagination is not limited by such realities as the director’s vision, the actor’s abilities or the advancements in CGI. This could actually prove detrimental for certain reads but, luckily, I have also argued that in books the “scary parts” can more easily be muted or skipped over entirely – think Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

What then, did I think of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange? I have never attempted to sit down and watch Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – the various scenes that I have been privy to over the years were enough to ensure I wouldn’t. Gene Kelly’s iconic dance in the rain is forever ruined, the tony restaurant in Calgary named Model Milk conjures an image that is, I assume, completely unintended and a jock strap will never ever be just a jock strap. Thanks to Kubrick.

So, knowing all of this, why did I subject myself to the written version where I’ve already argued our imaginations are free to run wild, unchastened? Like Burgess’ protagonist Alex I guess I thought “evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate.” I cannot know what I am objecting to if I don’t first subject myself to it.

And, in essence, this is what Burgess so masterfully writes about. The first hint of the power of his writing comes about 20 pages in when, after being so frustrated to start, the reader all of a sudden finds himself interpreting a slightly foreign language. Set sometime in the future, Burgess alters the dialect of English that Alex and his droogs speak: much like teens today, certain words are replaced by monikers known only to them. Initially, this is a challenge for the reader. While some substitutions are easy to comprehend – “this must be a real horrorshow film if you’re so keen on my viddying it” – others don’t follow so easily: “I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds.” But somewhere amidst the Rousseau-like message of Burgess, the ultra-violence, and the never-ending rape scenes the dialect becomes idiomatic.

The book is often touted (or banned) for being “a nightmare vision of a not-too-distant future” and while I would not encourage a 12 year old to read it, that very summary is the reason that rational, able-to-think-for-themselves adults need to read it: “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” Like the truly great reads that have persisted and will continue to persist for generations, A Clockwork Orange must not be read at face value. The shock should shake your grey matter, forcing underused neurons to fire, neurons questioning our actions our freedom of choice and our moral integrity.

As Alex would say, “What’s it going to be then, eh?”

~ kate

Can a Book Change Your Life

A couple of posts ago a dear follower recommended the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I haven’t read it yet but as soon as I read the synopsis I ran out and bought it for a friend who, in my humble opinion, was in need of some inspiration. Some proof that crazy things are possible, that the world is bigger than our imagination and that all we have to do is have an idea and be fearless enough to try.

There have been many such books in my life – books that made me think big, books that scared me, inspired me and shook the way I thought. I can’t possibly list them all but here are a couple that left a impact on me, one way or another:

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemache
  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • On the Road by Kerouac
  • the Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani
  • Lit by Mary Karr
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

As luck would have it, a that blog I follow, coffee, light and sweet posted a link a little while ago to a list of Life Changing Books.

Anyone have any titles they should be added to that list?

Faithful followers of Ayn Rand need not apply… 😉

~ kate

New Year’s Resolutions

In my first post of the new year I mentioned that 2013 started off on somewhat bumpy footing for me (it turns out 2013 unfolded similarly for others). In an effort to change this and regain my footing I set about making some goals for myself (and maybe some for my husband too but that’s a different post!).

When I thought about goal-setting, about changes that I want to make in my life, they could all basically be divided into the following categories: family, health, financial, career and mental. I made at least one goal per category even if it wasn’t an area where I felt like I was failing or even tiring and I tried to adhere to the criteria for making “SMART” goals. SMART is an acronym often used in the corporate-world when getting employees to set performance objectives for the coming year.  The hippy, non-corporate part of me gags a little when I think of porting this to my personal life but hey, they use it for a reason and, intuitively, it does make sense. The acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-sensitive.

For example, when I outlined one of my goals under “Health” it was not simply to “be healthy” but rather “to run a 10k road race before the summer”.  A 10k race is a specific target, the distance makes it easily measurable and since I am currently a casual runner it is definitely attainable and realistic. I added “before summer” because I figured it would be a good tool to get in better shape ahead of bike season – thus, the goal is also time sensitive. Another goal I made, under the “Mental” category, is to read 52 books this year. Obviously this is specific, measurable and time-sensitive but I have no idea if it is attainable/realistic. Reading 52 books means reading one a week which sounds easy but I’ve never kept track before so I have no barometer against which to measure this rate. I often read more than one book a week and when on vacation this rate probably doubles. However, I too go through periods of book-malaise where I simply cannot bring myself to read, succumbing instead to the mind-numbing comfort of Gilmore Girls (or currently Homeland!). I’ve seen similar goals floating around the book blogosphere lately so I thought I’d add it to my list – seemed like a good challenge and a good way to motivate me to get through the bed-side stack.

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Tumbling towers next to the bed

So, progress report. The third week of January has just come to a close and I am right on track with three books under my belt.

  1. Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
  2. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
  3. Ru by Kim Thuy

Hands-down my favorite so far is Ru. I don’t know if it was the story – a family flees Vietnam before the implementation of Doi Moi and ends up in an idyllic Quebec – or if it was simply the language which was so simple yet poetic (the novel was translated by Sheila Fischman) that it was completely evocative of Hanoi but reading it felt like being walked through someone’s dream. It was painless, beautiful and serene.

Pigeon English and Ru were both Xmas gifts as was Mister Pip, the next book on my way to 52 reads this year. Only 10 pages in so far and it’s Sunday night, better go make some head-way!

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Teddy opening his Xmas present. Just cause. Cause I’m a little obsessed.

~ kate,

I Will Always Have Paris

It pains me to say this but I did not love Paris: A Love Story. The memoir is written by Kati Marton who is an award-winning journalist, the ex-wife of Peter Jennings and a former foreign news correspondent and it is meant to be a tale of her love affair(s) both in and with Paris. As the title indicates, Paris is the backdrop for many of her life stories: her first torrid love affair, her foray into the man’s DownloadedFileworld of news 
correspondence, her first encounter with Ms Barbara Walters, her jet-setting career filled with shoulder rubbing a la rich and famous and her penultimate love affair (the city itself being the ultimate, n’est pas?) In summary, it sounds exactly-like-my-kind-of-book. And again, it pains me to say this but, it wasn’t.

Instead of an intimate portrayal of a city that so many have fallen in love with, myself included, instead of a story of heartbreak, of romance, of lust and loss, it reads like a memoir that someone was paid to write. From name-dropping of both the celebrity and political type to sentences that drip with forced romance (“I am drawn to you like Pooh to his honey”) and historical commentary not-so-furtively laced with network associations (both Marton and Jennings worked for ABC) the memoir reads like a commissioned report where the instructor has indicate in no uncertain terms which components should be included.

As a result, it is hard to read any of the story as authentic. I’m not saying I don’t believe that Kati loved Jennings or that she loved Paris or that she was lost when her second husband Richard Holbrooke died but I did not feel any attachment to her or the characters in her life (or even her Paris!) since the constant plugs served to create an ever-widening distance between reader and page.

In retrospect, even the back cover seems manipulated: two out of the three reviews were written by one-time ABC journalists (the third by Diane Von Furstenburg……). I’m not sure who is stuffing whom’s coffers with this book but I’m left with a bit of an acrid taste in my mouth.

Of course this has not ruined my own love affair with Paris or the genre of memoirs but I’m definitely putting this in my kitty under “how not to write a memoir.”

If you’re looking for a visceral read that will leave you feeling like you’ve just lived the millions lives of the narrator, check out any of the following memoirs:

Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Glass Castle by Jeanette Wallis

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

~ kate

The Power of Many

Why is it that when something becomes popular, becomes approved by the masses, we are so quick to dismiss it? Redbull was cooler when you could only get it in Thailand. I liked the Black Keys better before they played at the Saddledome.  Restaurants are cool until everyone knows about them. As soon as something is “popular” we shirk it. I know I have quoted Oscar Wilde in opposition of this before but why do we think that a popular consensus on something general removes credibility? Especially when it comes to art. Like somehow exclusivity is directly correlated to the worth of a piece of art.

I thought about this idea again and again while reading Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. John Krakauer has received wild success writing bestsellerimages_4 after bestseller and so I covertly put it in my bag at a used booksale some time ago. Just as I sheepishly pulled it off my bookshelf the other weekend in search of a guaranteed sink-your-teeth-in kind of read.

And here’s the thing: Into Thin Air delivered all that I expected and hoped for. It was a well written page turner that left me hungry for more – more climbing, more daring, more adventure, and more altitude! I carried the well-worn paperback around with me everywhere I went for the two and a half days it took me to polish it off – sneaking in a couple of pages at my desk, Mount-Evereston the bus, in the bathroom, in bed, at the dinner table – wherever I could! I was completely immersed in the lives of the characters, waiting with baited breath to hear which character was to find their doom next. Krakauer’s writing is so visceral I started to feel my breath strain as he described what it feels like to simply exist, let along climb, above 26,000 feet. I wrapped myself in blankets in front of the fire while reading of the pain-inducing cold and I constantly checked the map in the front cover to ensure I was still on track with my fellow climbers. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Why then, did I shy away when someone asked me what I was reading, or hesitate to blog about it or feel like I was reading something in a beach category (with a scent of distaste)? Because Krakauer’s book has been made into a movie. Because it was an instant bestseller. Because many of the people who have read it have no idea who authors like Mikhail Bulgakov or Philip Roth or J.D. Salinger are. Because I am a book snob.

This idea of a starving artist is not a new one. There is a fatalistic romantic in me that imbibes the idea. And yet, as one of the blogs that I follow, Door Sixteen, posted the other day, an artist is human and needs money just like everyone else. I read for education. I read for enlightenment. I read for escape. But most of all I read for enjoyment. So, as Ms Crow said, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” I will try to remember this the next time I shun a book simply for its popularity.

~ kate

If you liked Into Thin Air, try Beyond the Horizon.

Back to business

You know the question you get asked in an interview, “What’s your greatest weakness?”. Well, I’ve been told by at least two of my former bosses what mine is. Straight up: I’m too passionate. My last boss told me my passion was a double-edged sword that led me to strive for constant improvement but also not know when to give up. In the grand scheme of things, I’ll take it.

Friends who know me well can also attest to this – I’m easily riled up and I LOVE me a passionate convo. There are a few key people in my inner circle who bring out these kinds of conversations and I never get bored of them so it should come as no big surprise that I fell hook-line-and-sinker for my latest grab off the bookshelf at work: The Leader Who Had No Title. Written by Robin Sharma in the same manner as the groundbreaking The Wealthy Barber, The Leader Who Had No Title takes place in the day of a life of a man who has started to give up on doing anything more than survive. That is until he meets an eccentric man who introduces him to “Leading Without a Title (LWT) “. The concept is delivered through interactions with several supporting characters who are part of a sort of LWT inner circle. To get the point across, each character describes their life story and the part LWT has played in it. To further motivate the reader Sharma peppers the book with famous quotes, anecdotes and a general “ask not what your country can do for you” kind of attitude.

51GhMP0raLL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_ The cumulative result is an intoxicating koolaid and since I started this post by describing how passionate I am, it should come as no surprise that I drank the koolaid to the point of inebriation. These days especially I find myself wandering around dreaming of the difference I can make – at work, in a hospital, at home, in Africa, in Central America, in my bank account, on the street… no place seems off limits and yet I am limited by two thoughts – can I actually make a difference and how can I make a difference?

The Leader Who Had No Title clearly details that one person can make a difference primarily through a series of small changes in the way we think. However, I found the book a little light on real tangible “how-to” kinds of suggestions that would allow me to take the ideas further then pen-to-paper. After buying into the idea I wasn’t sure what to do with all the swirling ideas in my head. It was a little like convincing me to buy a car before I had my license.

Additionally, about half way through the book the sappy language really started to irritate me. The main character started repeating his teacher’s lessons back to him with a little too much leave-it-to-Beaver gusto and the fable started to move further and further away from reality taking with it my interest in finishing the book.

All in all though I’d give this book about a four out of five. The writing was very average but the message is one to be lauded and it is delivered in such an accessible way that it really does have the potential to reach the masses which is why I’d guess Robin Sharma is a very rich man today no longer working the floors of a bookstore.

My biggest take aways from this book were:

  • “Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations” (Ralph Charell)
  • Success comes from work hard, strong ethics, innovation and perseverance
  • The CEO gets buried next to the street cleaner
  • One of the biggest regrets a human can have is to reach the end of days having never inspired another soul
  • Each of us is responsible for our own journeys, there are no reasons we can’t achieve whatever we want, only excuses

So, go forth and, as Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

~ Kate

I’m gonna call this one a waste of my time

Not since I first read The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford some five or so years ago have I actually enjoyed one of these “see the world in a new way” kind of books. I’ve read a number of them from: Freakonomics to Outliers to 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Fooled by Randomness and I’m almost inclined to say “if you’ve read one, you’re read them all.”

There are interesting and enlightening sections of all of these books for sure but they certainly do not comprise the bulk of the book. In my most recent foray into the “Business” genre, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, there were interesting tidbits – like why Sesame Street was so successful and how NYC cleaned up their subways – but that was all in the first couple of chapters. After that, Gladwell just reinvented the wheel, repeating information he’d already said in a slightly different way or inserting one more case study that sometimes read more like an exercise in name dropping then actual teaching.

I have so little to say about this last read it’s almost pathetic. I feel like these books are less about seeing the world in a new way and increasing your personal/work effectiveness and more about the authors staying employed. Its sort of like Starbucks venturing into selling food, then smoothies, now coffee machines. With a little tweak people might thing it’s an fresh new store but really the crux is the same. But who am I kidding, I’m the one that keeps finding myself in the business section at the bookstore, handling another hot bestselling “sure to make you see things differently” book before slowly walking with it to the register. I believe they call that a suckers maxim.

~kate

I’ve got a thing for Africa

I think it started with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. My obsession with African literature, that is. So, when I saw a tattered copy of Out of Africa at a used book sale this past year I grabbed it without a second thought and tossed it into my already teeming box of books. It wasn’t until much later when I’d unpacked

and was revisiting my purchases that I realized I hadn’t bought Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa but rather Kuki Gallmann’s I Dreamed of Africa. “International Bestseller” was splashed across the cover so I thought, what the hey? When will I learn!

I don’t want to be too harsh in this review since this book still falls within the category that I hold dear but I have very few good things to say about it. It started off well (that’s one) – a young Italian woman is crippled in an accident and finds herself starting a new life in Kenya. Sounds pretty exciting to me, like a story I could live vicariously through. The story never gets going though. It is just a series of events and people strung together in time.

I didn’t feel Kuki’s pain and struggle with her new handicap; she simply tells the reader “it was hard, but then the doctor fixed my leg” (I’m paraphrasing) so the opportunity for the reader to empathize with her is largely lost. The author-reader connection is further hampered by Kuki’s ability to tell her story – her life in Kenya reads more like a book report written by someone in grade school then a memoir. This critique comes from personal experience (not that I’ve tried writing a memoir. Yet). Somewhere in elementary school my teacher told me not to just retell the story, write how it made me feel, what my thoughts were, what I thought the author was trying to say as otherwise I was just writing a report, not a personalized review. This advice could have served Ms. Gallmann well.

Writing a memoir in chronological order is somewhat necessary if not the point. We, the readers, are supposed to grow with the characters and see how they change in accordance with the events of their life. Kuki’s memoir, however, is organized along a timeline so rigid there is no room for deviation. Instead of grouping events together in order to convey a message, significant events were interrupted by unrelated activities like a new neighbour moving in or a plane ride over the Great Rift Valley. Important or significant experiences? Perhaps, but not as isolated events.

As a result, I was unable to build the intended attachment to characters, central or otherwise, and had to rely on the “facts” Kuki offered instead of making my own discoveries. Her son, for example. I understood (ad nauseam) that he loved snakes but I couldn’t really get an idea of who he was because a) her anecdotes were weak and fluffy and b) she used lines like “[Ema] was quiet and independent”; basal descriptions that didn’t serve to provide me with a sense of who the boy was.

I initially thought Kuki’s writing was going to be a strong point in the book (that’s two positive things?) because there are some beautifully descriptive lines early on but by the last third of the book when I encountered lines like “A life, like a concert, is made of high and low notes, of pauses in the elation and of peaks of reverberating, deafening heartbeats” they stood out like a sore thumb. They  were in such stark contrast to the bulk of her writing that instead of “waxing poetic”  her words instead seemed trite and forced.

My opinions of this latest read diverge widely from the popular opinions at the time of publication. Maybe it’s an issue of timeliness – there have been a long line of memoirs out of Africa since the year 2000 – or maybe its just as Oscar Wilde said.  “Everything popular is wrong.”

~ kate